If having a good idea were all it took to have a successful online venture, we’d all still be getting our pet supplies at Pets.com.
Townme.com is a good idea, but it needs a lot more TLC from its founders before it really becomes a useful tool.
The free site, formed by ex-Googlers in San Mateo, Calif., promises to deliver relevant, hyper-local results for residents who want information on the town they live in. It lists businesses and is in a blog format so that users can review a business and add comments. The site also relies on user-generated content. Users can create pages for their businesses or just list their favorite restaurants. I made a page for BizSense that you can see here.
But if you want that information, you could get it from plenty of other sites. In fact, the map results on Townme.com are generated by Google Maps, so why do I need a middle man? To be sure some of these issues are par for the course with any new endeavor.
But for now, the other problem is that the results are far from comprehensive. How many Japanese restaurants are in Richmond? 30? When I searched “Japanese Restaurant” on townme.com, it returned four results, and those were only restaurants that had “Japanese Restaurant” in the name (for example: Nara Japanese Restaurant). If you search “Japanese Restaurant” in Google Maps, you get all four of those restaurants in addition to all the other ones, such as Osaka and Sticky Rice, that don’t literally say “Japanese” in the restaurant name.
For businesses, it is dangerous to put your name out on these sites because you set yourself up for unfair criticism in a public forum. And this is a growing issue in the business community that I will explore in a later column.
If I run a plumbing company in Midlothian and 49 times out of 50 my plumber shows up, fixes your problem and leaves without you ever thinking about it again after the check you gave him clears. The one time my plumber goes to work with a migraine, forgets to turn the water off before he removes a pipe and floods out your bathroom, you are going to hop on sites such as townme.com and rip my business. That’s despite the fact that the vast majority of my plumbers’ work is professional and thorough. What I’m saying is that it is rarely the people who are happy with my plumbing work that are going to feel strongly enough to review me on townme.com.
But for what it is, the site is easy to navigate and well designed.
The first time you log on, you enter your Zip code, and the site directs you to your local site. I admit I spent almost 45 minutes looking at interesting statistics and demographic information that is linked to on the front page. (For example, did you know that there are 1,500 more women in the 20 to 29 age bracket than men in Richmond? Those are pretty good odds for the male population.)
But the site is woefully inadequate when it comes to search results. If you were feeling ill and you wanted to find the closest hospital on townme.com, you’re out of luck, because the only result that turned up was some dentist in Shockoe Bottom. So unless Jason Lipscomb, DDS, can perform your emergency appendectomy, you might be screwed.
The site is almost two weeks old, and there are 31 user-generated pages for Richmond. Most of those are “Top 10” lists such as “Best Restaurants in Shockoe Bottom,” and other such irrelevant subjectivity. (For the record, I disagreed with almost all of the selections on that list, proving that such lists are useless because everyone would have a slightly different take.)
The problem for townme.com is that it is not nearly comprehensive enough to be a valuable reference resource and not nearly popular enough yet to be useful even on a social networking level. And as for the user-generated side, the last thing the Internet needed was another forum for biased banter that can damage a good business’s reputation, especially when problems often boil down to a misunderstanding. But it’s hard for a business to defend itself from every false claim or damning statement posted online.
If you disagree with that, you may post on the comment wall saying that I’m an absolute moron, biased, a liberal or a bad journalist. But if I asked you to come in to the office to talk about what you disagreed with, you may not couch your criticism in ad hominem appeals and inflammatory rhetoric. It would probably well reasoned and thoughtful. But that’s precisely the problem with townme.com.
David Larter covers technology for BizSense. Please send news tips to [email protected]